It’s little secret that the Winder-Barrow High baseball team has its sights set big in 2017, with all but one player returning from a squad that went 25-7 and reached the GHSA Class AAAAA quarterfinals a year ago.
The Bulldoggs enter the season ranked second in Class AAAAAA by Georgia Dugout Preview Magazine, but coach Brian Smith cautions there is plenty of work to do before his team can challenge for the program’s first state championship since 1979.
“We’re going with the mindset that everything is new; one pitch at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time,” Smith said. “We do return a bunch of guys who are hungry and have really worked hard to get better from last year. Everybody wants to be better.
“There’s no complacency or feeling like we’re already there. These guys are coming back with a chip on their shoulder.”
The Bulldoggs are loaded with seniors, including five who have already signed with colleges. Two of those — centerfielder Pat DeMarco (Vanderbilt) and catcher Beau Hanna (Kennesaw State) — are being hailed as potential early-round MLB draft picks and were selected to the Georgia Dugout Preview’s preseason all-classification team.
Winder-Barrow’s strength is up the middle with Hanna, DeMarco, ace pitcher/shortstop Will Hardigree (USC Upstate signee) and second baseman/shortstop Trent Maddox (Augusta University). Seniors Casey Thurmond (Georgia Highlands signee) and Darrell Woodall will split time at first base with promising sophomore Zack Smith manning the hot corner at third.
Junior Jackson Melton should also see time in the infield, Smith said.
Senior Daniel Buice and sophomore Sam Darling will see time in left field while senior Skylor Murphy returns in right.
But the Bulldoggs’ best depth comes on its pitching staff as 12 of the 15 players on the roster could see time on the mound this year.
Thurmond, Woodall and Smith are just a few of the main guys who will be in the rotation behind Hardigree.
That could very well benefit the Bulldoggs immensely, given both the GHSA’s new pitch-count restrictions and the schedule format for the new six-team Region 8-AAAAAA, which will see teams face each other in three-game series on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“Those new pitch rules are important and it’s forced everybody to make some changes,” Smith said. “I’m excited about this new region format because you can’t just beat anybody anymore with one strong pitcher. Teams have won region titles like that in the past and then gotten in trouble in playoff series because they didn’t have the depth. I think this will really tell us who the best team is in the region and who the most deserving of that No. 1 seed is.
“It’s going to be really fun. We’ve already got some good, competitive rivalries in this region and playing a team three times in a row in a week should add to that.”
And Smith does expect stiff competition in the region with Gainesville, the No. 10 ranked preseason team by the magazine, Lanier (No. 14) and newcomer Dacula, which is armed with a couple of college pitching prospects, leading the charge.
“There isn’t anybody that couldn’t beat you,” Smith said. “Every year, you face teams with a lot of very talented guys. It’s always a fun, strong test.”
But the Bulldoggs will get even more tests on their non-region slate, including a trip to the Augusta area this weekend to play perennial powers Greenbrier and Evans, a matchup with Buford and a trip to both the Perfect Game High School Invitational in Cartersville March 9-11 and the USA National High School Invitational in Cary N.C. March 29 through April 1.
The Bulldoggs were one of only 16 teams across the country and the only one from Georgia invited to participate in the latter.
“That’s just going to be great competition and great exposure for our kids,” Smith said. “We’ll be facing some of the best teams from around the country.
“There will be a kid in there who throws the ball 100 miles per hour. The only negative thing is it’s plucked right there in the middle of our region schedule, but it’s going to be an exciting experience.”
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